It’s ten to one you read in my title the opener to a much cited quote about Nazi Germany. And two to one that even if you couldn’t identify the author, Pastor Martin Niemöller, you could give an approximation of how the rest of it goes: I did not speak out because I was not a socialist…a trade unionist…a Jew…
Though anchored in time and place, in history at its darkest, the pastor’s remorse – he was not speaking rhetorically but in penitence – points to a truth neither finite nor spatially bound but universal: what goes around comes around. To look the other way as others are cruelly treated is not only cowardly and immoral. It is dangerously myopic. No man, opined one of England’s finest poets, is an island. Ask not for whom the bell tolls.
Then they came for the intellectuals…
Mao targeted these. So, in more distilled and chilling form, did Pol Pot. And long before Hitler’s doctors injected the disabled – life unworthy of the name – with benzene prior to graduating to carbon monoxide in sealed vans, and longer still before his inner circle drew up its plans for a final solution to The Jewish Problem, thinkers were ridiculed, purged and if need be liquidated by the Third Reich. All regimes strive to channel, to set limits to acceptable thought within, their intelligentsia.
This, for reasons I’ll go into another time, is not hard. Independence of mind is rare, academia not excepted. Scholars have competence in forms of symbolic discourse learned by way of apprenticeships that confer useful reasoning tools and, at best, an obligation of truthfulness through evidence based argument. They do little, however, to nurture originality, far less a stance of fearless independence.
There are exceptions. Over decades half in/half out of academia I’ve known professors, and more junior academics, I deem astute and independent thinkers. They are a minority though. Academics are seldom stupid – though a few have left me wondering – but not always that bright either. Not in the terms I’ve set out, of truly independent mindedness and the capacity to set aside a-priori assumptions; to take risks, and think with startling originality.
(That capacity demands heart and soul as well as brain, and for the most mundane of reasons. Our institutionally fostered careerism, intensified by the marketisation of academia, begets cynicism. Which in turn begets, by way of strategies to ease cognitive dissonance, diminished rigour. First it comes for your promotional aspirations. Then for your critical faculties …)
All of which makes Professor Piers Robinson special in my book. Connected in more ways than one – he works at University of Sheffield, where I taught (without our paths crossing), and he too reviewed for OffGuardian the recently published 9/11 Unmasked – we met over coffee for the first and so far only time back in October.
It was a good meeting: cordial, focused and wide ranging within a coherent framework. We’d read one another’s work and, while his knowledge of our topics – Syria, 9/11 and corporate media – far exceeds mine, he was appreciative and supportive of those like me who seek to synthesise and popularise views and facts subversive of dominant messages too useful to vested interests, and with too many incongruities and roaring silences, for acceptance at face value by the critically minded.
In the hour and a half we spent together, before I had to dash for a train to London, his detailed grasp of those three topics at times left me struggling to keep up. We agreed on parting to make these meetings a monthly event, though my November move to Nottingham has put this on the back burner.
What I remembered most clearly was his severally repeated insistence that things are worse than we realise. He may have said this in respect of Syria. He certainly said it in respect of 9/11. Most of all though he said it in respect of corporate media, addressing a conclusion long held by me: that the false narratives on Russia and the middle east may be aggravated by the career cynicism (similar to that in academia) and lazy credulity of journalists, but has at root more to do with the limits of dissent set by market forces.
Though I don’t recall him disagreeing, he finds that view – of journalists as credulous rather than consciously propagandist – too charitable. Nor is he the only one to say so. I’ve been taken to task on this by BTL comments on OffGuardian pieces I’ve written, and by a Media Lens editor who wondered if pulled punches on George Monbiot betray a mild form of Stockholm Syndrome. At any rate, this recurring claim by Piers Robinson – that things are worse than we realise – is what I most recollect from our espresso fuelled engagement in October.
(In referring, amongst other things, to media infiltration by intelligence services, he cited his own experience. That said, unswerving backing by BBC and Guardian – Independent to lesser extent – of the West’s wars on the global south, and relentless Russia baiting, should in any case caution the open minded against slamming the door on such a possibility.)
I took it personally, therefore, when I was alerted – through a FB post by Elizabeth Woodworth, co-author of two books reviewed by me on this site and in OffGuardian, to a Huffington Post assault on Piers Robinson three days ago, on December 7. Indeed, the vitriolic tone – coupled with too many appeals to authority, too few to evidence – would have had me penning a swifter response, on this site and on the day, had I not been taken up with concerns that have kept me from writing for too long. Fortunately, Elizabeth has published her own on-the-day response, in the form of this open letter to HuffPo editor Jess Brammar and feature writer Chris York.
I do not know what happened on September 11, 2001, Robinson’s position on which is the thrust of HuffPo’s attack. I do know I was way too quick to condemn, on logical rather than empirical grounds, all 9/11 Truthers. Most inexcusably, I confused a marxist view – that conspiracy is not needed to explain the demonic logic of capital in the age of imperialism – with the non sequitur that 9/11 could not have been a false flag operation.
I ain’t saying it was, mind. Just that I can no longer – due to Elizabeth Woodworth’s and David Ray Griffin’s book on the subject – rule it out. Actually that’s too weak. I can say emphatically that whatever did happen on 9/11, the official account by the National Institute of Standards & Technology – a US government inquiry accorded impartial and unimpeachable status by the HuffPo hatchet piece – is so riddled with flaws, inconsistencies and refusals to address hard evidence (indeed, in places with active concealment of the stuff) as to invite accusations of “coincidence theorist” and “pathologically credulous” on those who see NIST as fair-minded investigation, Truthism as the preserve of a lunatic fringe.
But back to that HuffPo piece. Do read it. And Elizabeth Woodworth’s open letter. Then, if you’re in the mood for more, try the Media Lens book, reviewed here, Propaganda Blitz. Might I draw your particular attention to its definition of propaganda blitzes?
…fast moving attacks … communicated with high emotional intensity and moral outrage, apparently supported by an informed corporate media/academic/expert consensus [and] reinforced by damning condemnation of anyone daring even to question the apparent consensus.
Which is as much as I have to say on the matter. For now.
- I’m inclining to the view that media conditions – in the context of declining revenues, of permanent war on the global south, and of looming strife at home – beget a third and hybrid position; an uneasy blend of naive but self serving acceptance of authority, with cultivated distaste for any line of inquiry that might challenge its core premises.
- A further nail in the coffin of my refusal to give Truthism time of day was encountered just days ago. I consider the chapter on put-option, call-option and short selling in the days prior to 9/11 the weakest link in the powerful case assembled by Griffin and Woodworth. That chapter is in my view too slim to make the case. More detailed consideration of this aspect, however, is given in two linked pieces written in 2011 for Foreign Policy Journal by Mark Gaffney. Highly recommended for its impeccable substantiation. As, indeed, is G & W’s book